GRAND RAPIDS — A physician can have all the abilities in the world, yet it’s for naught if patient and doctor can’t speak each other’s language.
And as a growing number of immigrants and refugees settle in the Grand Rapids area and begin to adjust to their new home, language barriers have become an increasingly significant obstacle separating physicians and patients.
Armed with a $720,000 federal grant, Metropolitan Hospital will try to do something about it.
The hospital, in partnership with other care providers in the market, is working to establish a pool of trained interpreters who will use videoconferencing to better bridge the physician-patient language gap.
While many health-care providers generally arrange to have interpreters on site when needed, the logistics involved in having the right person at the right location and time are often cumbersome and time-consuming, said Sheila Rettig, Metro Hospital’s grant administrator.
A limited number of available interpreters adds to the frustration, Rettig said.
“There’s got to be a better way. It won’t help us if we can’t talk to the patients, ” she said. “We’ve identified a need that we can’t supply. There are not enough interpreters to provide the service to the patients. It’s very frustrating for providers.”
Rather than putting so much effort into trying to coordinate the schedules of three people — the physician, the patient and the interpreter — Metro now wants to have interpreters available by videoconferencing.
Under the three-year pilot program, Metro will initially staff a central videoconferencing center with trained personnel from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.
In the first year, interpreters would provide interpretation for physicians and patients in the outpatient surgery and lab departments — the areas where the need for interpreters has been identified as the greatest — at both Metro Hospital and its Breton Health Center, which serves a large number of refugees who’ve settled in Grand Rapids.
Metro would expand the program to include videoconferencing capabilities at Spectrum Health and Saint Mary’s Mercy Medical Center in the second year.
In year three it would bring its remaining partners on board: Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, the Kent County Health Department, Catholic Human Development Outreach, and Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Metro is still finalizing formal contracts with each of the partners, Rettig said.
The exact number of people Metro treats each year who need an interpreter is hard to gauge, Rettig said.
But with Grand Rapids designated by the federal government as one of three refugee settlement areas in Michigan, the consensus is that problems with language barriers will only worsen if not addressed, she said.
The ultimate goal of the pilot program is to develop a model that other hospitals and care providers around the nation can use or adapt to erase patient-physician language barriers.
The plan right now is to launch the program slowly in order to “get the bugs out,” and build it as more information is learned, Rettig said.
Metro’s proposal was among 721 submitted to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Technology Opportunities Program, and one of just 74 nationwide to receive funding.
The $720,000, coupled with matching grants from all of the partners involved, will cover the estimated $1.49 million cost to purchase needed equipment, train interpreters and implement the program.
The program will initially offer interpretation in three languages: Spanish, Vietnamese and Serbo-Croatian.
If the program proves successful, Metro would expand it to 24 hours, connect additional departments such as the emergency room, and bring on additional languages, Rettig said.
Rettig hopes to have the program operating within two months. Metro is now in the process of recruiting interpreters, who will go through a six-week training course geared toward interpreting in a medical setting and understanding the ethnic culture of the patients they serve.
That understanding is key because many times a person who has come to the U.S. isn’t familiar with medical practices here, Rettig said.
A medical practice that Americans find common and acceptable might be unfamiliar and unacceptable to a refugee and require a high degree of explanation, she said.
“That becomes a problem if they don’t accept the Western medicine approach,” she said.
“Not everyone thinks or decides things or plays by the same book we play with. If that patient doesn’t accept that treatment, you’ve wasted a lot of people’s time and they’re not going to get well.”